Wed, 27 Oct 2021

Alejandro Villanueva's Rebound Game Comes With an Army Analogy

Baltimore Ravens
24 Sep 2021, 05:25 GMT+10

Ryan Mink

As a former Army Ranger, Alejandro Villanueva has been in plenty of precarious situations during his lifetime, to say the least.

A disastrous Week 1 game in Las Vegas would seem like small potatoes, right? Well, Villanueva had some military flashbacks thinking about it.

"I think that offensive linemen are very dark people in a lot of ways," Villanueva said Thursday. "It's a position where, when you close your eyes before the play, all sorts of bad things are happening. And then you're hoping they don't. Because a lot of things are outside of your control.

"It's very similar to jumping out of airplanes. I don't want to get too controversial with this statement, but when I was in the Army, I would always look up and see the big mass jumps of the 82nd, the Rangers, and I would always ask myself if we were really going to jump ever again into combat. ... And if I'm not going to, they why is it that I'm jumping? I'm about to commit suicide until a system of shoelaces and plastic bags catches me up in the air and avoids sure death. You get these type of feelings that there's a not a lot of upside to jumping, not a lot of upside to playing tackle."

The circumstances were not in Villanueva's favor in Week 1 in Las Vegas. The Ravens offensive tackle was playing in his first full game as a right tackle, after spending his first six years on the left side. He was in Allegiant Stadium, which was rocking with fans for the first time ever. He was lined up opposite "Mad Maxx" Crosby, a ferocious defender with 17 sacks in his first two seasons.

As Ravens fans know, it did not go well for Villanueva. He surrendered 10 pressures, two sacks, and got the lowest pass blocking grade of any offensive tackle in the league that week, per Pro Football Focus. After one week, fans were clamoring for a replacement.

So how did Villanueva handle it last week? He doesn't really have a ritual or routine yet, so he turned to the men beside him and went to work.

"It's relying on the people in the building that will support you, coaches [and] players, and try to do the best with the next snap," Villanueva said. "That's the only thing that matters, there's always the next snap."

On Sunday night against the Chiefs, the circumstances were more in Villanueva's favor. Most importantly, he was back "home" at left tackle with Ronnie Stanley sitting out with an ankle ailment. Villanueva was also at "home" in M&T Bank Stadium. Villanueva still had to tangle with Pro Bowl defensive end Frank Clark, among others, but this time, he was the one in control.

Villanueva didn't allow a single pressure. He got the seventh-highest pass blocking grade in the NFL, per PFF. On a magical night for Lamar Jackson, it was Villanueva who got the Ravens' highest offensive grade of the night.

Villanueva said it's too early to say what the biggest difference was in his performance between Week 1 and Week 2. How good will he be moving forward?

"I think the sample size is very small. We're talking about two games," he said. "There's a lot of football left, and there's a lot of improvement we have to have as an offense and as a team."

One thing for sure is Villanueva has proven himself a more-than-capable run blocker, which makes the former Steeler fit in well in Baltimore.

The Ravens lead the league, by a wide margin, in rushing yards through the first two weeks despite the injury losses at running back and reshuffled offensive line. Villanueva's blocking at the point of attack has been a key reason.

The Ravens leaned on Villanueva on Jackson's game-winning fourth-and-1 conversion in the final minutes of the 36-35 victory over Kansas City. Villanueva hit Chiefs Pro Bowl defensive tackle Chris Jones so hard at the line of scrimmage that he turned him backwards and pushed him across the entire formation. Jackson ran through the gap left behind.

Villanueva played in the most pass-heavy offense in the league last year in Pittsburgh. Now he's in the most run-heavy attack.

"I wasn't quite sure how [his run blocking] would look, because you don't get a true look at it in training camp. Gameday is just a little different," Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman said. "I'm really liking what I'm seeing there. I think [it's] a little bit better than I thought it would be."

It's hard to think of a bigger one-week rebound than Villanueva had between Week 1 and Week 2. The way Villanueva handled the whole thing shows why the Ravens recruited his services. It's not just about what the 6-foot-9, 277-pound blocker brings to the field. It's also about how he approaches his job.

"I try to approach every day the same, try to get better at my craft, try to understand the game plan," Villanueva said.

As long as Stanley is out, which is unknown at this point, Villanueva will be the Ravens' left tackle.

The Ravens gave Stanley a five-year, nearly $100 million contract extension last year to handle that job long-term, but he suffered a season-ending ankle injury just a couple days later. Now it's Villanueva protecting the team's most valuable asset in Jackson.

After the Ravens converted on Jackson's fourth-and-1 run, Villanueva turned to the Ravens sideline, flexed and let out a huge scream. Jackson gave Villanueva a leaping chest bump. It was a tough first week, but nobody encapsulated Baltimore's Week 2 turnaround more than Villanueva.

"It's not just myself learning about him. I hope a lot of people did," Jackson said. "He took the first game seriously. A lot of people doubted him [and] were saying all type of stuff about him. He moved from right tackle in the first game to left tackle to protect my blindside, and he aced it."

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